Bit­ter­sweet – the truth about choco­late


In New York four years ago, a 53-year-old woman ar­rived in hos­pi­tal un­able to talk, with weak­ness and tin­gling fin­gers and a heart pound­ing at 165 beats per minute – well above the nor­mal 60 to 100 beats range. She had eaten a whole box of choco­lates, send­ing her heart into over­drive.

The woman had no his­tory of a rac­ing heart and the ar­rhyth­mia ap­peared to have been spon­ta­neously in­duced by over­dos­ing on choco­late, a com­monly craved food.

Choco­late is clearly a sweet spot for many, with 3 mil­lion tonnes of co­coa beans con­sumed glob­ally each year.

Mayans, who wor­shipped the Ix­ca­cao god­dess, be­lieved the ca­cao tree was a di­vine gift and sym­bol­ised fer­til­ity. Its sweet de­riv­a­tive, choco­late, is recog­nised among sci­en­tists as an an­tiox­i­dant and can lift som­bre moods. In the armed forces, it has long been in­cluded in ra­tion packs as part of a bal­anced diet.

Roald Dahl’s char­ac­ter, Char­lie Bucket, in the book Char­lie and the Choco­late Fac­tory, re­veals that even the sight of the stuff evokes emo­tion: ‘‘ Walk­ing to school in the morn­ings, Char­lie could see great slabs of choco­late piled up high in the shop win­dows, and he would stop and stare and press his nose against the glass, his mouth wa­ter­ing like mad. Many times a day, he would see other chil­dren tak­ing bars of creamy choco­late out of their pock­ets and munch­ing them greed­ily, and that, of course, was pure tor­ture.’’

But is choco­late our friend or foe when it comes to our health and the im­pact of its pro­duc­tion, world­wide?

The likely cul­prit of the New York choco­late lover’s health woes was a com­po­nent of co­coa, says Dr Sau­rabh Paras­ramka, an emer­gency doc­tor at the hos­pi­tal whose case study was pub­lished in the Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Emer­gency Medicine.

‘‘Since methylx­anth- ines – theo­bromine and caf­feine–- are a com­po­nent of co­coa and a com­pet­i­tive an­tag­o­nist of the adeno­sine re­cep­tor, it is not sur­pris­ing that when con­sumed in ex­cess and in pa­tients with sub­strate for supraven­tric­u­lar tachy­car­dia, th­ese ar­rhyth­mias can be in­duced eas­ily,’’ Paras­ramka says.

‘‘We were not able to quan­tify the amount of choco­late [the pa­tient con­sumed, but] she did have at least one box and maybe more.’’

Bio­chemist Dr Libby Weaver says some peo­ple can­not eat choco­late, ‘‘but I can’t tell you if that’s sim­ply the caf­feine, and the same thing might hap­pen from cof­fee, or if it’s the theo­bromine or other sub­stances from the ca­cao pod it­self that’s hav­ing those ef­fects’’.

‘‘I’ve had clients who just can’t eat it at any time of the day be­cause their heart just starts rac­ing,’’ Weaver says.

For peo­ple fond of choco­late, pure nibs straight from ca­cao pods, and dark choco­late, are healthier choices than choco­late con­tain­ing more re­fined su­gar and other ad­di­tives, she says.

Weaver also cau­tions against giv­ing too much to peo­ple with height­ened sen­si­tiv­ity to it, such as chil­dren, whose abil­ity to sleep, learn and con­cen­trate could be af­fected by its con­sump­tion.

‘‘If you own a dog, you’re told never to give your dog choco­late. It’s re­ally not good for them,’’ Weaver says.

’’ Now, I know hu­mans and dogs are dif­fer­ent species, but with young chil­dren, ob­vi­ously their ner­vous sys­tem and their whole en­docrine sys­tem are still very im­ma­ture and I worry about the ef­fects of too many stim­u­la­tory sub­stances go­ing into smaller bod­ies. When we’re adults, we can han­dle more.’’

There are plenty of stud­ies that sup­port choco­late con­sump­tion. A Ger­man study fea­tured in the Euro­pean Heart Jour­nal found that eat­ing choco­late ap­peared to lower the risk of car­dio­vas­cu­lar disease, in part through re­duc­ing blood pres­sure.

Univer­sity of Granada re­searchers, whose study is pub­lished in Nu­tri­tion, claim to have dis­proved the old be­lief that choco­late is fat­ten­ing, find­ing that the more choco­late you eat, the lower your body fat, even when you don’t ex­er­cise.

The prin­ci­pal au­thor of the study of 1500 ado­les­cents in Spain, Mag­dalena Cuen­caGar­cia, says choco­late is rich in flavonoids, es­pe­cially cat­e­chins, ‘‘which have im­por­tant an­tiox­i­dant, an­tithrom­botic, an­ti­in­flam­ma­tory and an­ti­hy­per­ten­sive ef­fects and can help pre­vent is­chaemic heart disease’’.

How­ever, choco­late con­sump­tion should al­ways be mod­er­ate, she says.

Epi­demi­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence supports the no­tion that long-term fla­vanol in­take pro­vides sev­er­alo health ben­e­fits, in­clud­ing neu­rocog­ni­tive en­hance­ment and neu­ro­pro­tec­tive ef­fects, ac­cord­ing to Swin­burne Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy Pro­fes­sor An­drew Scholey, at the Cen­tre for Hu­man Psy­chophar­ma­col­ogy, in a re­view of the ef­fects of choco­late on cog­ni­tive func­tion and mood pub­lished in Nu­tri­tion Re­views.

So­cially, though, there are ques­tions to be raised about know­ing the ori­gin of what goes into our mouths and the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the global de­mand for choco­late’s main in­gre­di­ent, co­coa.

In the same year the 58-year-old New York woman was be­ing hooked up to heart mon­i­tors be­cause of an over­dose of choco­late, In­ter­pol was res­cu­ing 54 young chil­dren of seven dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties em­ployed il­le­gally as work­ers un­der hor­rific con­di­tions in West African co­coa plan­ta­tions, which pro­duce more than 40 per cent of the world’s co­coa sup­plies.

In­ter­pol says the chil­dren had been bought by plan­ta­tion own­ers need­ing cheap labour to har­vest co­coa and palm crops, car­ry­ing mas­sive loads and reg­u­larly work­ing 12 hours a day with no ac­cess to salary or ed­u­ca­tion.

Cana­dian Carol Off, au­thor of Bit­ter Choco­late, says while the vast ma­jor­ity of cel­e­bra­tions of life are as­so­ci­ated with choco­late, few of us know how it reaches us, with ref­er­ence to child labour.

’’Two or three days of their work [ in plan­ta­tions] is re­quired for a choco­late bar,’’ Off says. ‘‘ Two or three days of their lives is con­sumed in a heart­beat on the other side of the world.’’

Dan­ish jour­nal­ist Miki Mis­trati re­ported wit­ness­ing child labour in West Africa in his 2010 doc­u­men­tary The Dark Side of Choco­late, in which he chal­lenged choco­late man­u­fac­tur­ers to take ac­tion to stop such ex­ploita­tion. Dur­ing film­ing, he ap­peared alarmed by the un­solved kid­nap­ping and sus­pected mur­der of FrenchCana­dian jour­nal­ist Guy- An­dre Ki­ef­fer, who was known to have asked ques­tions about co­coa in­dus­try prac­tices be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing in Abid­jan, the cap­i­tal of Ivory Coast, in 2004.

Nes­tle Aus­tralia an­nounced last year that ev­ery choco­late it sells is now in­de­pen­dently cer­ti­fied to en­sure the co­coa is sourced and pro­duced sus­tain­ably on farms with safe work­ing con- di­tions un­der the Nes­tle Co­coa Plan to help farm­ers elim­i­nate child labour and bring about sus­tain­able and prof­itable farm­ing.

‘‘Our work with West African co­coa farm­ers is help­ing to ad­dress the is­sues fac­ing the farm­ers and their com­mu­ni­ties, while giv­ing Aus­tralian con­sumers the con­fi­dence that the co­coa in them has been pro­duced sus­tain­ably,’’ Nes­tle Aus­tralia’s busi­ness ex­ec­u­tive man­ager con­fec­tionary and snacks, Martin Brown, said when an­nounc­ing the plan.

Cad­bury says its Dairy Milk prod­uct is Fair­trade cer­ti­fied to help im­prove the lives of Fair­trade co­coa farm­ers and their fam­i­lies in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries.

As for the woman who ate the box of choco­lates and­needed med­i­cal care to re­store a nor­mal heart rate, Dr Paras­ramka says it is the only such case he has seen.

‘‘This is the only case of ar­rhyth­mia with choco­late I have come across, so I as­sume it’s rare.

How­ever, I have seen more cases of peo­ple com­ing in with pal­pi­ta­tions af­ter con­sum­ing en­ergy drinks, which does have caf­feine in it.’’ Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald

SWEET STUFF: It’s de­li­cious but choco­late’s health ben­e­fits are mixed and its pro­duc­tion has a dark side.

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